David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

How goes the surge?

A month after the Bush administration announced a "surge" in troops for Baghdad, Iraqis are still waiting for anything to change.

Fewer than 20% of the additional Iraqi and American troops have arrived so far. And the roughly 5,000 that have arrived have yet to make a visible impact in this sprawling city of 6 million people, where thousands of paramilitary gunmen patrol the streets.

U.S. officials are trying to manage expectations both domestically and in Iraq, continually asserting that the new forces will slowly take up positions in the capital over the coming months.

But after one of the bloodiest weeks since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Iraqis are increasingly impatient. A series of high-profile attacks on both civilians and security forces killed more than 1,000 Iraqis and at least 33 U.S. troops in the first nine days of the month.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he is investigating whether he can speed the pace of the troop buildup. But a senior Pentagon official said this week that it was unlikely that U.S. troops could be sent to Baghdad any faster than planned. The five brigades going to the capital are due to arrive one per month, with the last coming in May.

From The Guardian today:

US preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage, in spite of repeated public denials by the Bush administration, according to informed sources in Washington.

The present military build-up in the Gulf would allow the US to mount an attack by the spring. But the sources said that if there was an attack, it was more likely next year, just before Mr Bush leaves office.

So there you have it. No real surprise. Just about anyone paying any attention understands that's where things stand: Gun loaded. Safety lock still on. In the hands of an Administration with an itchy trigger finger.

A few days ago, I linked to a James Fallows' column in which he suggested that Congress take steps now to head off an Iran misadventure. Several readers emailed wondering whether Congress has the power to preempt the President from taking military action.

As it turns out, the Senate Judiciary Committee has held hearings recently on this issue. In a column of his own, John Dean summarizes the bipartisan consensus that emerged from witnesses who testified at that hearing:

What is especially significant, in my eyes, is that the conclusion that Congress does indeed have power to significantly restrict the Administration in its plans for war, transcends politics: Even experts who have worked for Republican administrations have come to this conclusion.

. . .

[T]here is no real question as to whether Congress could legally stop Bush and Cheney from going to war in Iran without coming to Congress to fully explain what they are doing and why. Congress has that power; the only question is whether it will dare to use it.

For those interested in the finer legal points, Dean provides links to the witnesses' written testimony.

You can come up with a laundry list of reasons why attacking Iran would be a disaster, and you can come up with a decent list of reasons why the Administration is presently constrained by circumstances from doing so (not enough troops and hardware, for example). But you'd be hard-pressed to come up with any good reasons for why this Administration would be constrained by either circumstances or potentially disastrous outcomes. Besides, do these clowns still deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Today's profile in courage:

When Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) saw reporters approaching him last week, he took off in a sprint, determined to say as little as possible about a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's troop escalation plan expected to come before the Senate today.

"You know where I stand," the senator, who is considered politically vulnerable back home, said repeatedly as he fled down stairways at the Capitol. "I'm still looking."

Pretty shabby for a senator from New Hampshire, where the state motto is "Live free or die."

"I'm still looking" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Greg Sargent flags this paragraph from today's Post

Moreover, Pelosi told her colleagues that if it appears likely that Bush wants to take the country to war against Iran, the House would take up a bill to deny him the authority to do so, according to Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.

We touched on this approach a bit yesterday, linking to a James Fallows' piece in The Atlantic.

Here's the problem with Pelosi's approach. Waiting to act until war with Iran "appears likely" strikes me as politically unfeasible.

As Josh has sketched out, there are any number of ways for military confrontation with Iran to evolve, and none of them plausibly involves the President announcing his intentions in advance in an address from the Oval Office. Rather, there will be an incident (some would say, "incident") which becomes the justification or the tripwire, call it what you will, for U.S. military action.

Pelosi seems to be saying that only then will Democrats throw themselves in front of the train to keep it from leaving the station. Too late. That's politically untenable, and the train will roll right over Democrats.

Replacing several U.S. attorneys around the country was driven by political considerations from the White House, not Main Justice, the Washington Post reports.

I know it's a little disingenuous to act as if U.S. attorney appointments are not usually political. They always are. But usually the appointments are driven by local partisan considerations in the district in question, closely overseen by the state's senator(s) who is from the same party as the President.

Removing sitting U.S. attorneys to deepen the GOP's bench for future judgeships, appointments, elections, etc., may be unprecedented. Paul Kiel has more.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) regrets voting for the Iraq War resolution in 2002:

The resolution was a resolution that authorized the president to take that action if he deemed it necessary. Had I been more true to myself and the principles I believed in at the time, I would have openly opposed the whole adventure vocally and aggressively. I had a tough time reconciling doing that against the duties of majority leader in the House. I would have served myself and my party and my country better, though, had I done so.

I think that's farther than Sen. Clinton has been willing to go.

In a piece headlined "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over Trial," the WaPo has a nice synopsis of Cheney's involvement in the Plame matter.

Actually, you could headline just about every story that way these days: "Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over _________."

Fill in the blank: Iraq. Iran. Global warming. Renditions. Domestic surveillance.

I will confess to having been extremely skeptical in the early years of the Bush Presidency that Cheney was really running the show. It seemed too facile an explanation for what I was convinced was a far more complicated situation. Until the 9/11 Commission report came out.

Even the watered-down version of events in the Commission's report made it absolutely clear that Cheney, ensconced in the White House bunker on the morning of the attacks, had issued shootdown orders outside of the chain of command and then conspired with the President to conceal this fact from the Commission.

Since then, I've gone from being open to the idea of an Imperial Vice Presidency to being convinced that historians will debate whether something approaching a Cheney-led coup d'etat has occurred, in which some of the powers of the Executive were extra-constitutionally usurped by the Office of the Vice President.

Last week, in trying to break the lock on who actually works in the OVP--which the Vice President refuses to reveal--the guys at Muckraker stumbled across this entry from a government directory known as the "Plum Book":

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

It appears that Cheney's office submitted this entry in lieu of a list of its employees, as federal agencies must do. It sounds like something Cheney's current chief of staff, David Addington, might have written. Cheney and Addington have been the among the most powerful proponents of the theory of a "unitary executive," but there are indications that they have also advanced, though less publicly, a theory of a constitutionally distinct and independent vice presidency.

For a long time, talk of Cheney's unprecedented power carried with it a whiff of left-wing radicalism and Oliver Stone conspiracies. But in the last year, several serious journalistic efforts have explored the Cheney vice presidency. Robert Kuttner surveyed the field in his essay, "See Dick Run (the Country)," for The American Prospect. While it is axiomatic that Cheney is the power behind throne, what remains missing, as Kuttner pointed out, is the sort of relentless, day-to-day media coverage of Cheney that befits his claims to constitutional power:

If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent. The media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.

Yet the press buys the pretense of Bush being "the decider," and relentlessly covers Bush -- meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press conferences, while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take half the members of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost nothing to do anyway, and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They might learn how to be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the government.

The other thing missing has been congressional oversight. Since Kuttner penned his essay, Democrats have gained control of Congress. A hearing on the constitutional role of the vice president might be an excellent place to start. From all indications, Cheney has amassed considerable power due to his experience and savvy vis-a-vis the President's relative lack thereof. But that is a separate issue from the constitutional role of the OVP, and whether, or in what ways, various statutory regimens, particularly in the national security arena, apply to the OVP.

By custom and tradition, the Vice President's role had been circumscribed by how little express power and authority the Constitution granted the position. Hence, all the jokes over the years about the vice presidency. But in a move that is decidedly anti-conservative, in the conventional sense, Cheney moved to fill the void. I fear that what we will eventually find are structural flaws that were deliberately exploited by the OVP, which in turn further undermined constitutional and statutory structures.

Still, I can't help but be fascinated by the more pedestrian issue of how Cheney continues to assert himself so vigorously without running up against the ego of a cocksure President. How is it that Bush, who is so caught up in macho public demonstrations of his own personal strength and courage, can tolerate a shadow presidency within his own White House? What kind of spell has Cheney cast that allows Bush to continue to believe he is the decider? You can imagine all sorts of dysfunctional psychological dramas playing out behind the scenes.

But whether it's the legal or political aspect of Cheney's role, it all comes down to the same thing: we just don't know.

It's about time we find out.

James Fallows says, in essence, forget the surge resolution. The place Congress can best draw the line, he says, is on Iran:

Deciding what to do next about Iraq is hard — on the merits, and in the politics. It’s hard on the merits because whatever comes next, from “surge” to “get out now” and everything in between, will involve suffering, misery, and dishonor. It’s just a question of by whom and for how long. On a balance-of-misery basis, my own view changed last year from “we can’t afford to leave” to “we can’t afford to stay.” And the whole issue is hard in its politics because even Democrats too young to remember Vietnam know that future Karl Roves will dog them for decades with accusations of “cut-and-run” and “betraying” troops unless they can get Republicans to stand with them on limiting funding and forcing the policy to change.

By comparison, Iran is easy: on the merits, in the politics. War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq. While the Congress flounders about what, exactly, it can do about Iraq, it can do something useful, while it still matters, in making clear that it will authorize no money and provide no endorsement for military action against Iran.